It’s amazing how food has become one of the most engaging topics in media, especially on the internet. Food is a bonafide media darling. It’s more popular than Oprah, Paris Hilton and Barack Obama, combined. Nutritional importance aside, if just our interest in food could be harnessed as energy it would power every home on Earth. I bet there’s a new food blog created every hour of every day.

And why not? We have an insatiable appetite for this stuff! We know all the celebrity chefs by name. We support the countless number of food websites out there, scouring the web for recipes, news and information. Even the most casual among us enjoy watching The Food Network from time to time (and we’re even starting to admit it, too).

Food is our obsession. We want to experience it with all our senses, swoon over it with our friends, follow it around with our cameras, write it love notes, canonize its artists, and build great houses of worship in its honour. We consume food like, well, food. It really isn’t just something we eat, anymore.

Ok, we get it. Everyone’s talking about it. Now what?

Well, the first thing to do is find out what people are saying, and who they’re talking about. Television, radio, newspapers and the internet are where we normally get our information. These are great advertising outlets for big businesses with big marketing budgets, but small businesses need people talking about them, too.

One 30-second Super Bowl commercial alone costs $3 million to air! And why is it so expensive? Because millions of people will see the message, and this is very important for business.

Since very few businesses this much to spend on advertising and other resources, there has to be a better way – and there is! You can reach millions of people just like Pepsi and Budweiser, and do it by spending hardly any money at all.

Social Media Saves You Time and Money

With social media, you contribute a little, and receive lots in return. Here’s how it works:

Say you want to take a swim, but have no pool and only one litre of water. What do you do? Well, you collect 10,000 other people just like you who have only one litre of water but want to swim, and let a social media platform like Industry Blender serve as your pool. If everyone contributes their litre of water to the pool, then everybody gets to swim! All you’re paying for is the cost of the pool which, because of the volume of users, is very low.

The Power of Collaboration – Imagine the Impossible!

If you operate a bakery, for example, social media platforms are helpful because they allow you to link with other bakeries in your area quite easily. Before you know it, there are 100 bakeries in your group.

You talk to each other about the challenges you face, share stories, recommend, give advice, and team up. You provide each other with easy-to-access information and resources, which means no more searching all over to find what you need. Over time, the sum becomes much bigger than the whole of its parts.

Know your Competitors

Wouldn’t this group make things too competitive, you ask?

Not really. A large group of bakeries will get much more attention than a single one here and there, and attracting bakery customers is your primary goal. You can also use social media to keep up with what other businesses are doing. Watch what successful companies do and try to emulate those strategies. Social media gives you detailed access to this information, and makes it really easy to find.

Understand your Unique Advantages and Let your Customers Know About Them

On the other hand, since no two bakeries are alike, you can celebrate your differences and market to different types of customers. One bakery may specialize in custom wedding cakes, while another is set up for mass production. The great thing about social media is you can have an actual conversation with your customers, which puts a face to your business that people require these days before they will buy. Cultivate relationships, reinforce your brand, and take control of what is being said about you.

Market to Millions of People on a Small Budget

The ultimate goal is to be highly visible to people searching for bakeries, and from there you develop niches and set yourself apart. This large union of bakeries is very noticeable to customers, and now you’re a force which demands attention. Now that you’re getting noticed, other bakeries will want to join your group, and soon you’re a powerhouse of bakeries. You continue to pool your resources, become more and more visible to potential customers, and everyone does better business in the end.

Harnessing the Power and Speed of the Internet to Stay Competitive

Things happen very fast, so you must be able to converse quickly. If you have lobsters or other inventory that hasn’t been selling that you need to get rid of immediately, you can’t wait to announce a special in the paper, or count on a sign being seen on your restaurant or around town.

The best method is to post your information where other seafood lovers go for the latest information, just like how Craigslist works for people with classifieds. Advertising online is instant; there’s no need to wait for the “next issue,” or worry if you have missed a deadline date

Word of Mouth Advertising

One reality emerging is that people trust word of mouth more than advertising. This is why customer referrals are so important.

People love commenting about restaurants, movies, etc…, so use their opinions as free advertising. Post referrals you’ve received on your website and use them in your other marketing, as well. Information that comes from unbiased members of the general public is most powerful in influencing the decisions of others.

Encourage comments about your business because, on the internet, they spread fast or “go viral.” You’re probably worried about negative feedback, and, yes these spread faster than positive comments, in fact. But not everyone is going to be happy, so luckily social media is very defensible. You can quickly put out fires before they spread because you’re always conversing with your customers.

Most social media sites like IndustryBlender.com allow customers to comment directly about the goods and services they received. These comments are set in stone, so if you’re a business that takes care of its patrons and provides an excellent service, you will be rewarded.

Stephen Mutch, a business management, operations and client services professional from Napa, California says this about great customer service: “At the most basic element, great customer service  is (all about) fulfilling promises.  Failure to do that leads to loss of credibility and trust in your company and organizations which have fatal and long-term ramifications.”

Marketing and promotions can be accomplished in many forms and from a number of different mediums.  Some strategies are designed to reach a great number of people, while others focus on targeting and reaching a specific customer demographic.

Regardless, fostering great relationships with your customers are of utmost importance.  It’s often a  challenging task as consumer needs are constantly evolving and must be frequently monitored so as to make the necessary adjustments.  This is why a number of companies are employing “reputation managers” who constantly monitor blogs, social networks and other information sources on the internet to keep up with what people are saying about their brands.

It’s been said here many times before, but the best way to get the information you need to be successful is to establish many contact points with your customers.  And how else to do this effectively, inexpensively and efficiently but through social media!

So this week’s tip:  Take charge of your customer service!

Seattle-based Decho group, a technology development firm, doesn’t wait for customers to contact them with questions, comments or concerns – they seek them out directly by using social media tools.

ITBusiness.ca reports on their strategy: “‘Increasingly, they are choosing to reach out to the online community and ask questions about our products, rather than contact us directly,’ said Dave Robinson, vice-president of marketing at Decho.”

Amazon.com demonstrates pure mastery on this front.  They were featured on the cover of Business Week Magazine earlier this month because of their ability to turn potentially bad publicity into an opportunity to brand themselves as a caring company.  Here’s an exerpt from the article:

“For the most part, Amazon has earned a reputation for strong service by letting customers get what they want without ever talking to an employee. Sales clerks are nonexistent. Orders ship with a few mouse clicks. Packages arrive on doorsteps quickly. It all happens with monotonous regularity even as the number of customers has doubled in the past five years to 88 million. But when things go wrong at Amazon—and they occasionally do—the company’s employees get involved. That may be where Amazon stands out most markedly from other companies, and helps explain how the company earned the No. 1 spot on Business Week’s customer service ranking this year.”

When a business reaches out to their customers and does everything in their power to make them happy, they remember it, sign the company’s praises in their blogs, and tell all their friends.  A gesture which may cost $20 to fix could result in $2000 worth of business from valuable viral word of mouth.  A failure to pony up that same $20 in the event of a mistake could cost $2000 the other way.

Once thought of as a hobbyist niche that would allow people to easily stay in touch with their friends, social networking has now become perfect for the business world.  While my research leads me to believe that social networks of a like industry will dominate in the future, it’s best to join a number of them because once you fill out business information for one, it can be easily applied to your other networks.

Beyond networking in discussion groups or with friends, you can do so much more in a public social network, let alone what can be accomplished if you were to create a social network that embraced your employees, customers, suppliers and prospects.

Here are 10 basic strategies to create awareness of your business using public social networks:

1.    Your approach to public social networks should employ a broad marketing strategy. When you join your first social network, let’s say Facebook, save your profile contents to a document file so that you have the content ready to cut and paste in to any other social network you join. That will save you a ton of time.

2.    In your social network profile talk about your business and your brand. This can be done subtly or very openly. There are lots of business people doing this today whether on Facebook, MySpace or such business-oriented social networks like Xing, SalesSpider, LinkedIn and their like.

3.    Place mini applications on your social network page, such as widgets. If you want to understand what a widget is, there is a great article on the subject published in a blog written by Jeremiah Owyang, a Social Computing Analyst at Forrester Research.

4.    Create a video that you can post to You Tube about your business. It’s easy to do with the web cam you may have with your computer or one that you buy. They are really very inexpensive these days.

5.    You can also create slide shows using inexpensive web presentation tools such as Flypaper.

6.    You can create photo presentation shows with video, words and music using tools like Smilebox.

7.    Create a group focused on issues related to your business and brand, and invite people to join it. Start with your friends and encourage them to let others know about the group.

8.    Post Notes or create a separate blog and put the link on your social network profile page. On my Facebook profile, I have a link to this blogspot in the Info section. Keeping up a blog can be time consuming so choose to write about issues that you know will resonate with customers and prospects. If you find 3rd party content and want to incorporate it into your blog always ask permission first before posting.

9.    Link your company website to your public social network profile. And mention your social network presence on your company website. The more cross marketing you do the better.

10.    Get on as many social networks as you can. One is great but 5 or more is even better.